On Writing

On Writing (10th Anniversary Edition)
Stephen King
Scribner, 291 pages (trade paperback, 2010)

I am not necessarily a slow reader, but I am a scatterbrained one. Often there is a stack of five or six books sitting next to my chair in various stages of being read. No real organization as to their purpose or direction could be discerned even by the most careful of thinkers and analysts. So it is worth noting when I sit down to read a work and finish it in one day. But that is exactly what happened yesterday with this excellent tome.

The version I purchased is an expanded “anniversary” edition of the book, originally written in 2000 (and interrupted by the well-known car accident, which King talks about at length). It has a lot of additions and changes from the original package. One of the key things is a sort of loose writing autobiography that opens the book and takes up about the first 100 pages. There seems to be a necessity of having a rough childhood that enables a great writer to spend hours by themselves in their adolescence, often not by choice, being engrossed in books and other literature as a way to numb and hide from poor outside influences. King himself credits this for giving him the impetus to begin writing stories at age 8 and to be sending out short works for publication by the age of 12.

As with many authors King was not an instant success. He spent several years as an English teacher in rural Maine and started and stopped writing his first major novel, Carrie,  several times before his very supportive wife basically forced him to finish it. This encouragement from his beloved Tabitha (and the love King has for her is evident on nearly every page, which is sweet) is what he gives as the reason for his prolific output.

The book then turns from mild autobiography to its original purpose as a book giving advice to people wanting to be authors of fiction. King does not mince words in the opening parts. He makes it clear that bad writers cannot be made good and that great writers are more born than made. However, he does give a little hope to those who are decent writers, or even good writers. That by eliminating common mistakes (repetitive words/phrases, adverbs, and the passive tense are King’s biggest enemies in this section) and by reading a lot and writing a lot they can improve enough to be successful.

Also as part of what King does in the later reaches of the work he tells you how to get an agent, what to look for in a publisher, and particular ways to make writing easier. One of the things he harps on over and over again is that it is necessary that the writer not give up. Find a place, a posture, and a time that works and stick to it. Come up with reachable goal (500 words/day at first and raising that eventually to 2,000 words/day just like a runner doesn’t begin with 26.2 miles, but 100 yards, then 500 yards, etc…) and do not be discouraged by how bad a first draft might be. King does a very helpful thing at the end by providing a 10 page example of a first draft of a book he wrote, then showing his editing, and pinpointing where he makes changes and why he does it. There is some foul language, but if you are familiar at all with King’s work this should not surprise.

I highly recommend this book for any interested in writing, either for fun or money. I even highly recommend this work for those who just want to improve their skills in day-to-day facebooking. If you have an English degree or are well-versed in Strunk and White (which King says is a must own and should be almost slavishly followed) there will be nothing overly surprising in the book, but I guarantee you much shall be learned.

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